Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Interview with Upper Deck photographer Phil Ellsworth

Phil Ellsworth, owner of Phil Ellsworth Photography in North Carolina, is a long-time photographer for both Upper Deck and ESPN. He kindly spent an hour on the phone with me this morning talking about his career and many of his cards. He provided some great behind-the-scenes looks at the world of sports cards.

- When did you first start taking pictures for baseball cards?

- My first assignments were for 2003 in Southern California for Upper Deck. I first started collecting card in 1985 - Topps football cards. I collected cards based on which photos I liked. I thought it would be cool to take pictures for a baseball card company. After college I started working for the athletic departments at Washington University and the University of Idaho. In 2002 I quit all my jobs and went to Los Angeles cold turkey to further my career. I walked into Upper Deck’s offices in Carlsbad in August of 2002 and they threw me out. I was a long-time collector - had about 250,000 cards at the time. I had also been there two years earlier with a portfolio and they were more welcoming. This time they threw me out because they wouldn’t let anyone in without an appointment.

On my way home from that Carlsbad trip, I stopped by the Anaheim Angels. I knew VJ Lovero was the Angels photographer. He was my idol - I collected the Lovero collection. He stared Upper Deck photography in 1988. My favorite player was Mike Piazza. He had done a card eating cereal with Eric Karros.

I stopped by the offices, told them I want to get my foot in the door and help out. They told me the Lovero Group does the photography there. The receptionist gave me his phone number. I was too nervous to call for a couple of weeks. Finally in mid-September 2002 I gave him a call, and we talked for a little bit. He said he could use an assistant right now. The final game of the season was September 29 against Seattle. He needed an assistant for the game, and said he would give me a tryout. Sports Illustrated paid for him to have an assistant for that game. The shoot went well – they won the game and made the wild card, and VJ wanted my help through the playoffs, which was great and I was working with my idol. At the time he was sick with brain cancer but still able to work. I chronicled him throughout the playoffs as they were his team that he had photographed for a long time. I photographed him in the locker room after Game 7 of the World Series celebrating with the team and during Mike Scioscia’s speech to the team. He was also the team photographer for the Anaheim Ducks who also went to the Stanley Cup finals that year.

He was like a father to me. When he passed away in 2004 he left me his 400 millimeter lens in his will, an $11,000 camera lens. He left it to me to carry on my career. One of his best friends was Scott Clarke, staff photographer at Upper Deck and ESPN. VJ asked Scott to take care of me. When Scott had assignments with ESPN and couldn’t fulfill his Upper Deck assignments in 2003 and 2004 I went to those games and shot them for him. Eventually he told them, “You need another guy, sign this guy up.” In 2005 I signed a two year contract. Then in 2008 ESPN and Upper Deck moved to the east coast, and I moved out east with my family. Two years ago when they had their financial difficulties they did not renew any contracts. I am still doing some college basketball and football for them, not under contract. I recently shot LeBron James in Miami. I also went to Austin, TX to shoot USA Football.

- Do you have any stories about cards that you took the picture for?

- I shot the majority of USA baseball when Stephen Strasburg was there. The USA baseball facility is about 15 minutes from my house. I set up the portrait shots, and talked USA baseball into clearing their offices and got them to hang an American flag. I shot portraits of the Olympic players in front of flag, but Upper Deck never used the cards, I don’t know why.[photo from]

That same year I flew down to Miami to photograph the 16U team and Bryce Harper was on that team. When I went to Miami I was going to shoot a practice and do side portraits of each player. There is a photo in the 2008-2009 set of him fielding in the outfield rather than catching. I wanted a photo of him without all of his catching gear. I had him shagging flies in center field – I think he had to use someone else’s glove. I stood on second and took photos of him throwing the ball home.

Gregg Forwerck, longtime Topps photographer and friend of mine, was over at my house this week. He told me a story about Lance Berkman’s rookie card that he shot – he was not wearing his uniform pants. He was leaning against his truck, that his wife made him sell soon after.

I did the 2006 NFL rookie shoot. I was there to work for Upper Deck. At the last minute the Donruss photographer’s grandmother passed away. I took the majority of the Donruss Classic Rookie set. I took the photo of Reggie Bush wearing #5 – they photoshopped in the number 25. [Photo on right from]

In 2008, Upper Deck asked for some new ideas for rookie shoots. They had done shots of players jumping on a trampoline. One player got hurt and sued, so they changed to a bed. Upper Deck wanted something fresh and new. I came up with the idea that players would take their own photos. I set up a camera on a tripod with a foot pedal. I own the Darren McFadden card – bought it off of ebay. If you see that card, he is flashing his tattooed biceps. Any card with the ugly blue-gray-green background, they took themselves. The best pictures you’ll never see because the pictures were inappropriate for a card. Matt Ryan did one with his helmet backwards. Rashard Mendendall and a teammate posed with their knees in shoes to make them look four feet tall. I was a little disappointed because Upper Deck went with the less risky shots.

- Do you have a favorite card, either one taken by you or someone else?

- My favorite cards were the 2005 MLB Artifacts set, my first card photos taken as myself. It was the fulfillment of a boyhood dream. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere shooting for colleges, I decided I was just going to do it, quit my jobs and go to LA and make it happened. Seeing these cards was the fulfillment of a dream, after taking a substantial risk with no money and no jobs. I went on ebay and bought some 1/1s. Also, I always wanted to shoot a card of Mike Piazza. I had been to some games where he was there but he didn’t play. In 2007, his last season, I went to Phoenix and he was playing and shot almost exclusively him. 98% of the game was Mike Piazza. I got a shot of him running from second to third that was used. I bought a 1/1 printing plate of that card.

Up to two or three years ago I was Upper Deck’s most produced hockey photographer. One of my favorites is Alex Ovechkin because he is nuts and fun to be around. Another favorite is Sidney Crosby. I was fortunate that Upper Deck paid me to go to Detroit to cover Game 7 in 2009. I have a shot of Crosby raising the Stanley Cup. I was shooting from an elevated position during the game and had ice access post game. After the game I was deciding whether to stay in the elevated position or go down to ice. When they did team photo I went down to the ice and just barely made it to get him lifting the up over his head, which was used on a card.

For me the iconic baseball card photo is the 1989 UD Griffey. VJ Lovero photographed his card. He didn’t have a Seattle Mariners logo on his hat – it was one of the first cards to be digitally enhanced. In the card world it was clear to me as a photographer and collector that it was the beginning of the end of crappy cards. It wasn’t just the shiny stock but they put together a corps of elite photographers to make card images.

Some of the other cards I liked were the 1993 Bowman set where Gregg Forwerck got Manny Ramirez and Chipper Jones in street clothes in weird locations. He shot Chipper Jones in a salmon shirt in Duke University.

I grew up in Seattle and Griffey was my favorite player. I was at the game where he made the Spiderman catch. Dairy Queen made a card of it which I could relate to personally as a collector and a fan.

Another of my favorite of VJs was Jay Buhner and his son. Was tied in to a shoot done at VJ’s ranch.

The Lovero set was my favorite by far. There are a lot of restrictions now compared to what you could do then.

- Yes, most of the photography is now done in an assembly line at spring training.

- I did not like those – am not a morning person. You had to wake up at 4 in the morning to get there to set up. None of the players wanted to be there. One exception was Jim Thome. You need to get them smiling, serious (game face), left and right profile. Jim Thome would not do game face – only smiling.

I made a picture of Ichiro in a set where I had some baseball bats in. In the 2008 O-Pee-Chee sets, anybody you saw from the Mariners, Royals, a couple of other teams – I did. The funny thing is - I was in a wood bat league in California and I had a Louisville Slugger Derek Jeter bat. The bat had cracked and was taped with black photographers tape. Two stripes on this ash bat. When I went to these photo days, over a two year period, when a player didn’t have a bat I would use this bat. There are literally twenty or thirty cards of players holding my Derek Jeter bat. Took one of JJ Putz. Some of the USA baseball players. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler who were big rookies for the Royals. Ichiro wouldn’t use the Derek Jeter bat - he wanted to use his black bat which was fine.

It’s a shame that the industry is deteriorating in a way that is bad for photographers. For example Getty Images is forcing Upper Deck and Panini to pull exclusively from their photo pool. This is bad for the collector because you have two card companies working from the same photo pool. They are having trouble getting what they need to get. In 2002 or 2003 UD tried to get Getty to do their baseball card stock. But it was too difficult because they shoot editorial, mainly horizontal, and not vertical which you need for cards.

I have a young son now and I try to keep the best of the best for him. I have some Mantle and DiMaggio auto jerseys and Griffey auto bats to give to him. Best thing I sold was a Hank Aaron 500th HR auto card – 1/44 – sold it for $1200.

Another story – Gregg Forwerck was telling me that he photographed Manny Ramirez’s rookie card in his City League uniform. He was under a very tight deadline and had first shot him in his regular in his Cleveland uniform, and they processed his film wrong and it ruined the slides. And he was like “no, no, no,” and he called Manny’s agent, and he said that was great. Apparently Manny was bent out of shape that he wasn’t photographed in his City League uniform. Gregg thought Manny would be upset when he came back and wouldn’t smile, but he was very happy.

Another side the collectors don’t see is the editing. There is a picture of Todd White on my website, completely off the ground playing the puck, a very unusual shot. Upper Deck picked a different picture of him just skating up ice. The editors are on such a tight deadline that they just don’t have a chance to look at everything. They want to make something awesome but they get caught up – and they have to go through hundreds of images and just want to get something clean.[photo from]

Another factor is how the photo fits into the design of the card, sometimes because of location of autograph, jersey piece, etc. I got to shoot Sergei Federov at the end of his career with the Washington Capitals. I was told, “We only want him facing left,” which was a very strange request. I had to go in very early and request a specific location where I could get him facing left. Bottom line is I’m paid to be a photographer and not an editor.

Sometimes you’d get some great editorial photograph of a crazy play at the plate that is great for Sports Illustrated but you can’t use for a baseball card because you can’t see the player’s face. You have to photograph the action a different way when shooting editorial vs. a baseball card.

I shot Ryan Braun’s rookie card. I had lined up Ryan Braun’s head with the sun behind him to give him a halo effect. He was eating a bag of sunflower seeds, and he was leaning against the dugout guardrail. I think it was in SP where they used different photos in short-printed versions. Things pay off when you shoot things differently. Want to make cards memorable, something I would want to buy.

Some of the cooler things I did was the packaging and the boxing, I always wanted to get those shots. One year I had every Sidney Crosby shot that was on a box and package. I shot the photograph of Evan Longoria in Series 1 2009. I have the MVP 09-10 UD Box – Evgeni Malkin – Game 7 of the Stanley Cup. They also used the Reggie Bush photo in 2006 Absolute Memorabilia.

I used to spend hours looking through the sets looking for which cards. I have the picture of Mark Ingram on the brand new UD college football. I shot the picture of Stephen Strasburg’s auto rookie. I kept bidding on the cards on ebay but it was too expensive. Fortunately, USA baseball sent me a box and I was lucky enough to pull the Strasburg auto rookie card.

Thanks! He also sent me some scans of other cards of his:


  1. Wow...too cool. I love when you get thoughts from the guys behind the scenes. Especially stuff like this - the parts where his stuff were edited like the Reggie Bush photo are really neat!

  2. Terrific read. Very nice work. I'll be coming back to read this again when I have more time.

  3. Great interview, well done. I've actually done a little work with Phil but had no idea that he had such an interesting back story.

  4. What an excellent job! I loved reading along and watching the process unfold through the words and pics. This is a great interview!!

  5. The Team USA picture in front of the flag is way cool. I really like how he used a vignette on that shot. UD was dumb not to use it.